December 10, 2007
Mr. Brent Boyd
Dignity After Football
1580 N. McCarran Blvd
Reno, NV, 89503
Two things primarily contributed to my NFL career being only 6 seasons. The primary factor was that I suffered a broken neck in 1979. A lesser factor was my involvement as the player rep from the Cincinnati Bengals in the late 70’s.
During the time I was drafted in 1975, the player’s association was experiencing many challenges, including financial which was partially due to many players not trusting the union leadership and consequently not paying dues. When the Collective Bargaining Agreement was finally ratified in 1978, NFLPA Executive Director, Ed Garvey claimed that he had “been fooled” by the NFL lawyers when I and other veteran players confronted him about the language that gave rookies a way to exercise free agency, but neglected to provide the veteran players with the free agency option. In Chicago at the 1979 player rep meeting, I stood up and read out loud from the CBA, pointing out the subtle difference in language between rookies and veterans, showing the group how rookies could withhold their signature for a period of time and become free agents, while only the team still held the control that could make a veteran player a free agent. The veterans still did not have the power to be free agents, even though we had won the John Mackey case. When I finished reading and asking Ed Garvey to please explain how he could have been fooled on the veteran player’s language when he had the language for rookies correct, Gene Upshaw who was then the Vice President of the union, came down off the stage, walked to where I was standing and demanded that I leave the room immediately. I asked again out loud if there was any connection between the newly instituted “agency shop” agreement that authorized the teams to deduct player’s union dues from their paycheck whether the player belonged to the union or not, and the veteran free agency clause that did not provide free agency to veterans at all. Gene got up closer to me, very close, and again demanded that I leave the room, or else. At the time, I felt I had made my point, so I left the room. It was clear to me that our union leadership had cut a deal with the NFL owners, a deal where the owners ensured the existence of the union and the paychecks of Ed Garvey and his people by collecting dues from every player on every roster for the union, and in return, the union gave back our veteran free agency rights to the owners.
Serving as a player’s representative during this period was as dangerous to one’s career as trying to tackle Earl Campbell.
So back to the primary factor…during a game while making a tackle, I fractured a vertebra in 1979, but was told by Cincinnati Bengal team doctors that is was merely a “stinger.” So I limped through the rest of that season, treating my neck with traction and muscle relaxers prescribed by the team doctor. The Bengals cut me during the next training camp, claiming they wanted to “go with the youth,” and I spent the first part of the 1980 season on the Steelers, and the second half on the Vikings, who then cut me during training camp in 1981. I decided that was the last time I would get fired by the NFL.
I went to work to support my family while my neck and shoulder progressively got worse. I discovered that I couldn’t sit at a desk for very long without developing a neck spasm. I also couldn’t get to sleep at night for tossing and turning trying to find a position that didn’t make my neck throb. Chiropractic treatment seemed to work the best, but the results were always temporary and expensive. Needless to say, I have been ultimately fired from every good job I’ve had due to the growing and constant spasm that makes it too hard concentrate or sit up or walk or focus.
I applied for and was denied disability benefits in 1998 when the NFL appointed doctor determined that I had Degenerative Disc Disease and was “at least 80% disabled” but still should be able to perform “sedentary” work. The doctor’s words sound just like what was told Dave Pear and other disabled players whose stories I’ve read. I’ve never understood what he meant by sedentary work.
Anyway, I took what I could in the way of a retirement benefit ($420/mo that was recently increased by 25% to $530/mo). It wasn’t until 2002 when I finally had an MRI that revealed evidence of a previous fracture and the reason my neck ALWAYS felt like it was in a spasm or on the verge of spasming. My neck pain prevents me from standing, sitting, or sleeping comfortably. It is way past distracting, making it impossible to keep a decent job. I believe that I should qualify for disability benefits, but now I’m told that accepting retirement benefits in 1998 makes me ineligible to even apply for disability benefits...ever again. That just doesn’t seem right. I can understand how in the typical circumstance, when someone takes “early retirement” there is no expectation for that person to continue working and therefore no expectation for that person to develop a disability that would prevent them from working since they are no longer working anyway. However, when I applied for early retirement benefits, I always intended to keep trying to work. The NFL retirement benefit of $420 was merely to help pay the bills, and no one from the NFLPA office or the NFL or the NFL retirement office ever counseled me one way or the other about the consequences of taking early retirement.
I will close with my belief that the total effects of playing football and enduring the brutal punishment that comes with being in the NFL are cumulative and in many cases delayed. I honestly didn’t think I felt that bad while I was in my 30’s, but things started hurting much worse in my 40’s, and now that I am in my 50’s, I don’t know how much longer I can tolerate the increasing pain.
Thank you for listening Brent, and thank you for the courage and the energy to say out loud what needs to be said. I hope my story can be added to the hundreds of stories that still need to be heard.